Shortly after a performance group from Chengdu, China, returned home from the Pittsburgh area in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic went full throttle.

Then during the summer, an earthquake struck Sichuan Province, of which Chengdu is the capital, causing three deaths and damaging thousands of homes.

In Western Pennsylvania, the problems did not go unnoticed.

“The Chinese community here mobilized and donated 20,000 masks to the city of Chengdu,” Kwun Kwong Kai reported.

With Sherry Kai, his daughter, serving as translator, he welcomed guests to a dinner at Sichuan Gourmet in Squirrel Hill. Representing the Chengdu Foreign Affairs Office, Kwun expressed gratitude by hosting the event and presenting gifts to those in attendance.

He particularly thanked two South Hills women for their sustained efforts on behalf of the region’s residents from his country: Pier Lee of Bethel Park, director emerita of Peters Township Public Library and Organization of Chinese Americans Pittsburgh honorary chairwoman for 2019, and Susan Chang of Upper St. Clair, board president of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology’s Pittsburgh Chapter.

Among others attending the Nov. 19 event, which also kicked off the Pittsburgh Chinese Restaurant Association’s Sichuan Cuisine Week, were Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County executive, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

“The growth within the Chinese community in Southwestern Pennsylvania is due to so many people who are coming here in order to use their minds,” Peduto said. “They’re coming here as doctors and engineers. They’re coming here to work in the tech community.”

He acknowledged the role of the restaurant association in helping them adjust to their new surroundings.

“They’re staying here because they’re finding food and a culture that reminds them of home,” the mayor said. “Thank you for building that welcoming and allowing people to call Pittsburgh home.”

In January 2020, performers from Chengdu visited the region to demonstrate the art of Bian Lian, a creative use of masks also known as face changing, during a Spring Festival celebration of the Chinese New Year at North Allegheny High School in McCandless.

Other performers came from Wuhan, a Sister Cities Association of Pittsburgh partner and the reported place of origin for COVID-19. Just a week after the festival, Peduto oversaw a care package of personal protective equipment that was shipped to the capital of China’s Hubei Province.

The gifts of appreciation presented by Kwun Kwong Kai featured Sichuan flavorings – “I hope you guys like spicy,” his daughter said – and small stuffed giant pandas. The rare black-and-white bears are found only in China’s Sichuan, Shanxi and Gansu provinces, and Chengdu is home to a research base for giant panda breeding, along with a panda reserve that is open to the public.

“Once the pandemic is over,” Kwun suggested, “let’s organize a trip to see them.”

Pittsburgh Sichuan Cuisine Week runs through Nov. 28. Participating restaurants are Sichuan Gourmet and Chengdu Gourmet in Squirrel Hill, Jade Grille in Mt. Lebanon, Szechuan Spice in Shadyside and Little Asia in North Oakland.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!